There are many different definitions and theories of movement lawyering. The tools of movement lawyering are already used by many community lawyers in Australia. The following is a non-exhaustive list of principles taken from our learnings from movement lawyers in the United States who we have spoken to, worked with, and learned from:
- Working with communities and movements in a way that builds their long-term power.
- Lawyer-client relationships as participatory, power-sharing processes (this doesn’t mean simply deferring to clients, or not being critical).
- Communities and movements providing the direction and setting the agenda (just like paying corporate clients).
- The law, and the work lawyers do within it, is already a site of political struggle that reinforces current power structures and is used to enforce the status quo. Movement lawyers (like their corporate counterparts) engage with the law as a tool of defensive and offensive power.
- Accountability to movements and communities, and systems to ensure accountability.
- Self-reflection / critical analysis and continued learning; being prepared to be regularly uncomfortable.
- Building the leadership and amplifying the voices of those most affected by political and social injustice. Assisting our clients to get seats at tables of privilege – seats that we are often invited to occupy instead of our clients.
- Supporting visionary and offensive work.
We find the following questions from Professor Bill Quigley helpful to think about how these principles play out in our work:
- Where does the direction for the lawyering come from? Does it come from lawyers or from communities and movements seeking to bring about institutional, systemic or radical change?
- Where does the power go? Is the purpose of the legal work to redistribute unjust power relationships and transfer power to those who have been disempowered?
- Who gets the glory? Are lawyers the face of a movement, or those who are impacted, the clients and the movement?
- Is the legal work just one part of the overall social change movement?
- Is the lawyer willing to be uncomfortable on some sort of regular basis? Are lawyers willing to confront our training that teaches us we are specially privileged to be in this profession and entitled to solve problems on behalf of others?4
Movement lawyering practices do not have a universal structure or form. Being responsive to grassroots needs means meeting communities/movements where they are at and adapting accordingly. The form of movement lawyering practices differs depending on whether lawyers are working with highly organised and sophisticated movements, or communities with weak or non-existent movement structures.
Although the theory of movement lawyering may be new, the practice of it is not. In fact, Australia has a proud history of lawyers working with activists and organisers. The foundation of the Aboriginal Legal Service in early 1970, by young activists and lawyers in Redfern, to fight police harassment of Aboriginal people, provides just one example5. The Redfern ALS was founded on principles of Aboriginal control and supported Aboriginal people not only through direct legal services, but also by serving as a meeting space, providing advice to other Aboriginal-controlled organisations and by setting up bail funds and halfway houses6. As stated by Paul Coe, one of its founders, the ALS did not “accept the legal status quo and politically and socially in that it is a community-run and controlled, and geared to social change, in so far as its very existence is an indictment of non-Aboriginal society in Australia.7
There are countless other examples of Australian lawyers working with grassroot movements for systemic change. There are also undoubtedly many questions about how the Australian legal profession can translate a global theory of movement lawyering to our unique legal and political landscape. The purpose of this conference is, in part, to do just that.
1 – Amy Kapczynski & Jonathan M. Berger, The Story of the TAC Case: The Potential and Limits of Socio-Economic Rights Litigation in South Africa, in HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCACY STORIES (Deena R. Hurwitz & Margaret L. Satterthwaite eds., Foundation Press, 2009).
2 – Jennifer Gordon, ‘We Make the Road by Walking: Immigrant Workers, the Workplace Project, and the Struggle for Social Change Symposium: Economic Justice in America’s Cities’, 30 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 407 (1995)
3 – Derrick A. Bell Jr., Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation, 85 Yale L.J. (1976).
4 – William P Quigley, ‘Ten Questions for Social Change Lawyers’ (2012) 17 Loyola Public Interest Law Reporter 204.
5 – Johanna Perheentupa, Redfern Aboriginal Activism in the 1970s (2020) pp. 35-66.
6 – Ibid pp. 43-44.
7 – Quoted in Ibid p. 65.